Books

Learning Little from John Cage’s Letters

Cage-SelectedLetters
(image via University Press of New England)

The American composer/writer John Cage (1912–1992) was long notorious for his commitment to “chance,” because he used the Chinese manual the I Ching to make compositional decisions, but also because he often produced scores so approximate with graphic notation or even verbal instructions that the results could be only roughly predicted in advance. Performers’ interpretations were left to chance, so to speak.

However, from knowing Cage, initially in 1966, I understood that what was thought to be about “chance” was really about trust, which is to say that he trusted performers of his approximate scores not to violate them with their egotistical departures. As his art was entwined in his life, so he also trusted his collaborators to an unusual degree.

This last thought occurred to me when I was invited to submit any letters that Cage wrote to me for a collection long in progress, now published by Wesleyan University Press. Looking through files of my books done with him, as well as shorter writings about him, I couldn’t find any letters — none at all, zip. Had he ever sent me any, they evidently weren’t worth keeping. Reporting this to his sometime Soho art dealer Marguerite Roeder, I learned that she didn’t have any letters either. In my files I found copies of letters that Cage had written to other people, some of them quite lengthy, usually to instruct or to explain prior to their recipients’ working with him.

That made me realize that some of us didn’t need letters from him, because he trusted us to do what we did without requiring his instruction or encouragement. As long as we didn’t fail him, he implicitly approved. Among those in this club consider not only Roeder, but his close colleague the composer Earle Brown; the musical lexicographer Nicolas Slonimsky; the printmaker Irwin Hollander, whose workshop produced Cage’s greatest visual art (the 1969 editions dedicated to Marcel Duchamp); Sean Bronzell, a frequent guest at his house during the last decade of his life; and the violinist Paul Zukofsky, who is mentioned often. How else to interpret only one letter apiece from Cage to Teresa Sterne and Brian Brandt at the record companies issuing his work? The significance of such absences escapes the book’s editor, Laura Kuhn, who entered Cage’s life only five years before his death and thus missed what happened in the first 75 years.

Though the production of The Selected Letters of John Cage is quite grand, the letters themselves are not particularly distinguished. Too many are circumspect, especially when Cage is trying to generate biz or writing about money, trying hard to be acceptable rather than, as in his art, audacious. I’m reminded that Cage in public dressed conventionally with a jacket and tie longer than other artists his age, perhaps because he feared looking socially unacceptable.

Very few of these letters approach the literary departures that, to my mind, mark Cage as a distinguished avant-garde writer; no more than two broach the radical aesthetic ideas that made Cage an influential art philosopher. None have the provocative wit and surprise of his conversation (that I’ve composed and recomposed into an ur-interview). Perhaps more memorable Cage letters exist, but I don’t have them and can’t guess who might have. The anthology still to be done now (not by me) would be a selection of his poetry, which I’ve long regarded, since anthologizing some of it in my Possibilities of Poetry in 1970, as among the most significant in post-WWII American literature.

What are more remarkable in this Selected Letters, almost worth its high price, are the editor’s footnotes, meticulously identifying scores of individuals mentioned in Cage’s letters. Indeed, as I turned this book’s pages, I found myself for one measure reading these footnotes before looking up at Cage’s texts.

Only rarely does Kuhn fail Cage’s material. The “Reichert” working with Cage and his staff producer Klaus Schöning at Westdeutschen Rundfunk is the English professor Klaus R., not another guy whose bio she provides. (I know; I worked there at the time.) Second, in her footnote to a letter addressed to Anni and Josef Albers, Kuhn offers information only about the husband while neglecting his wife, who also had a distinguished artistic career. Tsk, tsk.

As I usually find most author’s photos peculiar, as they portray an earnest face that, over reprinting, is designed to become a trademark more familiar to potential readers, I feel obliged to note that this book’s cover photo of Cage is yet odder, showing an unfamiliar face, perhaps from 50 years ago, looking more sullen than earnest or happy. The jacket flap photo is more familiar, but since it shows a happy Cage smoking a cigarette through a long holder, it must have been taken decades before his death. Why can’t the publisher do better by its star author? Finally, how odd it was to see my closest friend in art, Dick Higgins (1938–1998), sometimes identified as Richard H. (Aren’t book publishers’ copy editors required to establish consistency?)

While the appearance of this Selected Letters probably provides an occasion for further favorable reviews of John Cage, along with yet other appreciations of his richly radical artistic career, may I doubt if this book adds or informs much.

The Selected Letters of John Cage is published by Wesleyan University Press and available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

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